Nothing, save drinking the water in Tijuana, causes travelers more anxiety than the vagaries of tipping. I have sat across dining tables with some of the best-traveled, most sophisticated people in the world who start to tremble when they have to write in a gratuity on the bill. I’ve seen CEOs who barely shrug when faced with a Senate sub-committee investigation in the afternoon go to pieces contemplating the tip at dinner that evening.
I admit, tipping is a tough business. And a completely stupid one, defended on the one hand by those who choose not to pay a decent wage to their employees, and on the other by those same employees who both need the money and who love the feel of straight cash in their pocket. (For the record, I have waited tables and loved the cash, too.) But why do we tip waiters, porters and valet parkers but not flight attendants, salespeople at a shoe store, check-out workers at a supermarket, or attendants at a full service gas stations—none of whom makes much more than minimum wage? There seems no rhyme or reason to it, except entrenched tradition. ( By the way, the word “tip” is not an abbreviation for “to insure promptness.” “Gratuity” precedes “tip” in print by two hundred years, around 1540.)
The rules have been changing. It used to be in the U.S. that you didn’t tip a full 15% on beverages, now it’s expected. The question is, if you can afford to spend $500 on a bottle of wine, would you balk at a $50-$60 tip on that bottle? Most of us don’t drink that high, so the tip on the bill is somewhat easier to swallow.
For the most part, we have only ourselves to blame, because American tourists, goaded by naiveté and misguided travel writers, tend to tip everyone within fifty yards of a hotel, restaurant or car park—even when the service is included. I have also noticed that American travel magazines give wholly erroneous information about local customs, recommending everyone on a service staff, from door man to chamber maid, from concierge to waiter, should be tipped and tipped lavishly. It simply ain’t the case.
Let me try to help by giving some reasonable guidelines that still make sense around the world
Restaurants: For good service 15% is still the norm around the country, for superior service, 20%, but the latter has increasingly been recommended by big city spenders, and some guilt-ridden customers go to 25% or 30%. Good for them, but then, why not 50%? Will you get love in return? If that’s what you crave, flash that cash!
The late New York plumbing executive John Gotti used to ensure extra special suck-up service by doubling the amount of the bill for a tip at restaurants—always obtaining the best table with his back to the wall. It was a sad day for New York waiters when the Feds sent the Dapper Don to the slammer, where his meals were provided through a slot in his cell. Service included.
There’s no question that the waiter in a low-priced restaurant deserves more consideration when the bill only comes to $22, but in high-end restaurants, which include steakhouses all arounds the country, a waiter can easily make $60,000 to $90,000 a year in salary and tips; on an average night at a bar where the drinks cost $20 a bartender can pocket $300-$500 easily.
In the U.S. the wine steward is tipped—preferably in cash—only if he has performed exceptional services, like choosing several wines for a multi-course meal or decanting old vintages; then, you maywant to tip him $5-$20 in cash.
The maître d’ is tipped upon leaving only if he provided a special service like getting you a specific table you requested, arranged for a birthday cake, or notified you that your ex-wife or current husband is in the dining room. Never, ever grease his palm upon entering, which will mark you as a patsy. It is rare these days, but some restaurants, like Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach, are notorious for its maître d’s who expect a twenty or fifty-dollar bill just to get a table at all in high season.
These days the coat check has for decades been getting a dollar per item, so it may be time to make five dollars a minimum. As for parking valets—otherwise known as holdup men—tip whatever you think is enough to get your car quickly and back in one piece. But in Los Angeles, the valet companies exact a charge, on top of which many of my Los Angeleno friends always tip extravagantly, fearful that the valet might in the future scratch their new Lexus if they don’t.
By the way, Europeans visiting the U.S. are known not just for their stinginess with tips but their feigned ignorance that one should do so at all, despite every foreign visitor having read a guide book that says otherwise.
Hotels: Once again, Americans tip everyone in sight. Here are some guidelines, depending on the prices in the hotel. Doormen are tipped if they help unload your luggage, although the porters bristle when they do that, because they do expect a tip. Notice how the porters never bring your luggage to your room as you check in but only bring it up after you’re in your room, thereby assuring you tip them when they knock on your door. One way or another, a dollar or two per bag is normal in most places.
Room service is the biggest gouge hotels can charge (even though they say room service makes no profit). Every room service bill contains a service charge, which is never less than 15% and sometimes above 20%, so an extra tip is not required, especially since the room service waiter did nothing but roll a cart into your room and take the lids off the food.
It is traditional in the U.S. to tip the housekeepers, and I think that generosity is the way to go in this case. Five dollars a day is a good tip, if the service throughout your stay has been what you expect. Coming back to an un-made-up room after 3 PM is not my idea of good service.
Generally speaking, tipping is wholly unnecessary in most European countries, where “service included,” “servizio incluso” or “service compris” appears on checks, along with a V.A.T. tax that may be 15% to 25% depending on the country. Restaurants, however, have gotten a break in recent years (except for alcohol, so the VAT in Belgium is now 6%; Finland 14%; France 10%; Germany and Hungary, 5%; Ireland is 13.5%; up until last week, Italy had no VAT on restaurant purchases but may go up to 10%. For rates, go to:
Nevertheless, Americans feel squeamish in Europe not leaving a tip on top of the service charge (and some tip on top of the VAT, too!). I have my friends in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere about tipping in restaurants again and again, and not one says it’s necessary or even expected. If they felt a staff member was particularly outstanding, a tip in cash of five or ten euros might be proffered; otherwise, no.
What, then, is the French pour boire? It is the tradition of leaving excess change or a couple of euros on the table or rounding off the bill. (The term actually translates as “for a drink,” so that the server can have himself one.) The same is true in most other European countries.
Taxi drivers do not expect a tip in Europe, though rounding off a charge of, say, 9.50 euros to 10 euros is a nice gesture.
At hotels, there is a tendency to tip porters, but a euro or two is sufficient. Concierges can work miracles upon request and should be tipped upon leaving with an envelope of cash; getting you a restaurant reservation is not a miracle; getting you into a three-star restaurant on short notice, is.
GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND
Things are different in the UK and Ireland. The rules have in the past been closer to American tipping ritual, though the gratuities are lower, between 10% and 15% for restaurant service. On recent trips to London I have found more and more restaurants adding a discretionary service charge of about 12.5%, so check your bill carefully and tip accordingly if you must.
Tipping used to be discouraged in British pubs until recently; some even had signs reading “NO TIPPING,” but now some publicans encourage it. Look around and see what the Brits are doing. Neither do your tip on pub food.
I read on one travel website that, “If the doorman hails you a cab, a tip of 1 to 5 pounds is appropriate, depending on how luxurious the hotel is.” It would have to be a pretty damn luxurious hotel to tip a guy who hails your taxi five pounds ($6.50).
Housekeepers do not expect a tip (unless you’re an American), but it is cordial to do so, perhaps a few pounds when you leave.
Taxi drivers are fine with a rounded-off tariff.
MIDDLE AND FAR EAST
The differences from country to country make general statements impossible and specific guidelines too lengthy for inclusion here. Ask at the local tourist office what customs suggest. In Istanbul there is always a 10% service charge on restaurant bills, with a 10% gratuity customary. Until recently in Israel no one expected a tip, but it’s now customary to leave 10% at a restaurant
In Hong Kong a 10% tip was once the norm at a modest restaurant, while upscale dining rooms usually added 10% to the bill. Now that Communist policy governs such things, tipping is officially
discouraged as capitalist bribery. But few Chinese these days will refuse a tip (or fear jail time for such an offense); nevertheless, be careful about throwing around cash. Some modern restaurants now tack on a 15% service charge.
Singapore also frowns upon tipping, despite the fact that the 10% service charge doesn’t always go the waitstaff. This is also true in Bangkok, where gratuities are not expected at hotels or restaurants. In Japan, where a 10% service charge is usually on the hotel and restaurant bills, tipping is truly considered bad form and an embarrassment, so keep your hands in your pockets!
AUSTRALIA Civilized country that it is, Australia does not exact a service charge, and until recently tipping was not the norm. Sad to say, it is becoming so, so you might want to leave 5%-10%. on a restaurant bill.